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Notes from a dinghy cruise to the Scilly Islands

John Perry - 1995

Following a pleasant dinghy cruise in the Isles of Scilly during August 1995  I thought I would write to let others know what an excellent area this is for a sailing holiday.

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According to a note on the Ordnance Survey map, the Isles of Scilly lie 28 land miles west south west of Land's End. However, it is hardly possible to start the passage from Land's End itself since this headland is bounded by jagged granite cliffs on which the Atlantic swell is almost always breaking.

Penzance is the obvious setting off point and is the harbour used by the ferry 'Scillonian' which sails to the Isles of Scilly every day of the year. Starting from Penzance adds about twelve miles to the distance from Lands End but there is really no alternative.

Newquay is a mile or so to the West of Penzance but it is a busy commercial harbour and pleasure craft would probably be unwelcome. Mousehole is a tiny harbour about 3 miles West of Penzance and we paused here for a rest on both our outward and return journeys. However, Mousehole is so near to Penzance that it does not really shorten the passage significantly and it is far inferior to Penzance for boat launching and car parking. When entering the narrow entrance to Mousehole, watch out for anglers on the pierheads and if you have a strong following wind shorten sail to reduce speed since there is not much room for stopping or turning inside the harbour.

Although the Isles of Scilly are visible from Land's end on a clear day visibility is often poor in this area and so there is a good chance that the passage will be made out of sight of land for some or most of the way. It is certainly necessary to have a dependable compass or alternative navigation system (I include the last clause since, sadly perhaps, GPS is now rapidly changing the way we think about navigation - navigation is no longer a matter of finding out where you are, it is simply a matter of deciding where you would like to go). From Penzance we sailed a few miles along the coast then headed out to the Wolf Rock lighthouse then turned West to cross the shipping lanes and arrive at the Isles of Scilly. This route gives one a definite position at Wolf Rock from which to set a course for the islands. It also avoids an area which is marked on the charts with the warning that seas break heavily in gales and it ensures that the shipping lanes are crossed at right angles. On the way back from the islands we took a more direct route and enjoyed the spectacular scenery as we passed close to the south of Land's End.

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The distance from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly will be a good day sail for most dinghies in most conditions but at least the passage is likely to be completed in summer daylight hours if one makes an early start. If making the trip in the dark there are several lighthouses which could be very useful but care would be needed in making the final approach in darkness without local knowledge.

The alternative of making a sea crossing to the islands under sail is to arrange to have your boat loaded by crane onto the deck of the ferry Scillonian then after a three and a half hour trip off loaded at Hugh Town harbour. Even if you sail your own boat to the Scilly islands the ferry is an emergency possibility for your return should bad weather threaten to prevent you meeting a deadline. John Kuyser had his 16 foot sailing dinghy ferried to the Scilly Islands and reported in the DCA Bulletin, Winter 1999 edition, that this cost ar round £200 return. The boat was transported on its own launching trolley which was used to launch down a slipway close to the offloading point. For an up to date quotation for your own boat contact:
Isles of Scilly travel web site or
Isles of Scilly Travel Centre Quay Street, Penzance, Cornwall TR18 4BZ Within the UK: (local call rate) 0845 710 5555 or International: +1736 334220 Facsimile +1736 334228

Approaching the Isles of Scilly from the East one may well enter the archipelago via Crow sound between St Mary's to Port and St Martin's to Starboard. St Mary's is recognisable by tall radio masts and St Martin's by a prominent day mark on the top of a hill. After entering Crow sound we spent our first night at anchor off the beach on Little Arthur Island to the north of the sound.scillies 03

The Isles of Scilly are really one of the very best dinghy cruising areas I have visited, once you manage to get there. As the tourist brochures are keen to emphasise, the weather is usually more pleasant than on the mainland, the sea is more blue since it contains less plankton and there are numerous beaches of clean white sand.

There are about 50 islands in the Scillies group, if you include the tiny uninhabited ones. The largest island is St Mary's which is about two and a half miles across. This is significantly larger than any of the other islands giving it a rather different character. There is a range of shops at Hugh town on St Mary's and some of the roads are as wide and busy as you might find in rural mainland Cornwall. Apart from St Mary's, there are four other inhabited islands: St Agnes, Bryher, Tresco and St. Martin's. Gugh is also inhabited but is really an appendix to At Agnes being a separate island only at high tide. These four islands are typically a mile or so across. Each of the four has one post office cum general store, one pub, one tiny school with perhaps four or five pupils, one camp site and one or two teashops or restaurants. There is also a single high class hotel on each of these islands, except I think St.Agnes. The locals of even the small islands mostly use cars but the roads are tiny lanes and quiet enough to be pleasant to use as footpaths.

Going down a size from the smaller inhabited islands there are several islands such as Samson which are just a few hundred yards across but which used to be inhabited when the farming population was larger. Many of these uninhabited islands have beaches allowing easy landing and they are ideal for a quiet anchorage overnight or a half day exploration ashore. Annet is one which should not be landed on without permission since it is a nature reserve.

The distance between any of the islands is only a few miles so once you have reached the islands you do not need to do very much sailing until it is time to go home.

The islands are generally fairly hilly. They are partly cultivated with small fields, often growing flowers and bulbs and with high hedges to keep the wind off. There is also plenty of open non-cultivated land, especially around the coastlines, and small patches of woodland are found where there is shelter from the wind. The mild winter weather encourages a varied fauna with garden flowers growing wild.

The special Ordnance Survey 1:25000 tourist map of the islands is useful both ashore and afloat.

Fresh water is in limited supply and there are no standpipes available to the public. We got our water by visiting the Tourist Information Office in Hugh Town which allowed us to fill containers in their kitchenette.

There is relatively little in the way of man-made tourist attractions. For example, there are no amusement arcades whatsoever. St. Mary's has a visitors centre which we never did get to see and Tresco has sub-tropical gardens which are worth a visit. There are plays, concerts and lectures several times a week in Hugh town and details of these are posted around the town and in the Tourist Information Office. There are also the gig races on Wednesday evening for the ladies teams and Friday evenings for the mens teams. These are races for long narrow clinker built rowing boats over courses of a couple of miles or so, often starting from Hugh Town harbour. We watched the start and finish of a gig race from our boat in the harbour but to see the whole race it would be best to board one of the spectator launches; it would take a fast dinghy and good wind to keep up with the race.

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Surprisingly for such rocky islands, many of the beaches are reasonably clear of boulders and so are suitable for allowing a boat to take the ground. I have to say that we sailed these waters in settled summer weather and I understand that in less favourable weather many of the anchorages are affected by the ocean swell from the Atlantic. Presumably many of the beaches would also be difficult for landing due to swell. However there are enough beaches that one would hope to find a sheltered one on a windward shore, perhaps in the small passages between the islands. A dinghy has an advantage over a deep keeled boat in this area since much of the water between the islands is quite shallow. There are no marina facilities so an anchor(s) is needed each night. Camping is forbidden anywhere other than the official camp sites and anti-vagrancy byelaws are strictly enforced. Only one of these camp sites (that on St. Agnes) is really close to a good landing place and so it is more convenient to sleep on board and probably not worthwhile to take a land tent in a cruising dinghy.

There is a byelaw forbidding one to sleep on the beach at Hugh town and sleeping in a boat which has touched the bottom at low tide counts as sleeping on the beach.  The locals spotted our boat aground, the Harbour Master promptly received complaints and we were 'moved on'. I assume that this rule only applies to Hugh town but preferred not to enquire further. 

Before we arrived at the Isles of Scilly I had wondered whether we would find enough to do during a planned stay of at least a week. The islands look so small on a map that you might think that there is little scope for exploration ashore. However we soon realised that this is not the case. There are plenty of footpaths which twist and turn around tiny fields and the coastline is highly indented so it takes longer than you might think to walk round the edge of any of the islands. We spent a couple of days walking on St Mary's and a day on each of the other four inhabited islands but we still left a bit for another time.